The Boxer, the Rabbi and the Bomb in the Basement

OK, I also had to click on a picture of a boxer with the word “Talmud” in the headline underneath. But when I read the NY Times story about Yuri Foreman, Orthodox rabbinic student and light middleweight pro boxer, what jumped out at me – for its fine surrealistic madness – was the explanation a Yeshiva University Talmud teacher of boxing could be deemed permissible under Jewish law:

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, an assistant professor of the Talmud at Yeshiva University, said Foreman could help fight the belief that Jews were weak or could be bullied.

Lest there be a misunderstanding, I’m not knocking Foreman, an immigrant kid from Belarus who didn’t fit into Israel, chose boxing as a way up, and moved to New York to make it. Lots of Jews chose boxing in the past, for the same reason that blacks have taken up the blood sport: People are willing to pay poor kids to get in a ring and batter each other. The Romans put slaves in the gladiators’ ring. Modern society has more subtle methods.

Rabbi Blech, on the other hand, is a problem – indeed, he is the embodiment of a problem. Not just that he’s ignorant of Jewish boxing’s past. Rather, he’s so convinced that Jews are perceived as weak – which is to say, he so perceives Jews as weak – that he glories in the idea of a Jew going into the ring and womping someone else a sufficient number of times and with sufficient skill that the other guy drops first.

When asked how he would react to the notion of a world champion boxing rabbi, Blech said, “I would be proud.”

Perhaps someone hasn’t mentioned to the good rabbi that actually, well, Jews as a people aren’t so weak; that they have their own country; that said country is reputed to have reasonable armed forces; that as LBJ’s adviser Harry McPherson cabled home after spending the Six-Day War in Israel:

“Incidentally, Israel at war destroys the prototype of the pale, scrawny Jew… the soldiers I saw were tough, muscular, and sunburned.”

Rabbi Blech may also have missed a little slip of the tongue by the prime minister of that country, Ehud Olmert, who classified Israel along with America, France and Russia as nuclear powers. Not that Olmert added to our knowledge, but he made it official.

But whether or not Rabbi Blech knows of Israel’s existence or of what it has in the basement, his comment explains the hawkishness of some American Jews toward Israeli policy: They want Israel to climb in the ring and batter the other guy, in endless instant replay, in order to compensate vicariously and repeatedly for their own sense of weakness. His comment also sheds light on the motives of some rightist rabbis here, who appear more concerned with a sense of Jewish weakness than with the limits that Jewish law would put on behavior toward non-Jews. For them, use of force is less a political means than a psychological need.

Whereas there is no justification whatsoever for the blood sport of boxing, there is good reason for Israel to have an army. There are times when we need to use our army, when no other means are available to protect us. As armies go, ours has been fairly successful in letting our opponents know that we are not weak. As a result, some have chosen to make peace with us, some have chosen the horrific and immoral methods that are the choice of the weak side in modern conflicts, and some are still making up their minds.

For some Jews, however, it is taking time to internalize the change in our image. If they could only accept that “belief that Jews [are] weak or could be bullied” is history, they might feel less need to celebrate pugnaciousness.

As for boxing, Bob Dylan had a clearer understanding of it than Benjamin Blech does.

5 thoughts on “The Boxer, the Rabbi and the Bomb in the Basement”

  1. This would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous. I studied Krav Maga and would have to say that it isn’t a fighting style developed for the weak or timid; it’s the most brutal martial art I’ve ever studied.

    Perhaps the rabbi should visit the IDF while they’re sparring. LOL!

  2. Sigh, the British Army and Navy (especially) has had its effective phases and it too has been useful on occasion and Britain also has nuclear weapons. On balance though I would say it has been much more trouble than it was worth, giving us Britons the means to maintain colonial projects and a mentality that is far too quick to resort to violence when other means may be far more strategically effective. Indeed I would say her military prowess was quite tragic.

  3. Stereotypes, can anyone be free of them? The weak Jew, the lazy Black, the macho male and on and on. We prey upon the stereotypical other even as we writhe under the stereotypical self.

    A friend of mine spoke to me in almost reverent tones of how Israelis easily carry weapons, are trained to use them and think nothing of having their armed forces in plain view. It was clear that he felt proud of this while I can only think of how horrible it would be if here in America we had the same situation. A necessity in Israel, maybe. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we never see our armed forces, but, unlike my friend, I did not lose family members in the Holocaust.

    I wonder what it would be like if one truly were born a tabula rasa, if somehow an individual could avoid the indoctrination of elders and freely choose what one is rather than facing the very difficult challenge of overcoming what one has been trained to be before the choice to make oneself can even begin. Could the tender psyche of the immature individual bear the awful anxiety of not belonging that such would bring?

    I think of the lyrics from “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics…

    “I know that I’m the product
    of my father’s hopes and fears
    I know that I’m the prisoner
    of all that he held dear… “

  4. I must say, sadly, that Gerson is kicking a dead horse and that Rabbi Blech, who I’m sure is no miracle worker, is merely trying to bring the horse back to life. Because boxing in America has unfortunately been dead, dead, dead for a long, long time. Even if the boy from Belarus becomes the champion in his weight class, who’s going to know it? The newspapers today have given up reporting on boxing because no one wants to read any longer about a sport that today is even more corrupt than it’s historically been, which is confusing with all its weight classes, which has no oversight to make it reasonably honest and competitive (e.g. as provided by Kenesaw Mountain Landis for baseball back in the ’20s), and which humiliates itself by countenancing matches by ausgespielt one-time boxers in their 40s (e.g. George Foreman and Larry Holmes climbing into the ring, as one cartoonist pictured them, while pushing walkers).

    But all that said (and it’s quite a bit), Gershon, like Rabbi Blech, is making a big tzimmes out of a one-time truly great sport that never really was as dangerous as football, e.g., is today. Gershon is right that Jews have proved themselves without boxing and have forever altered their lemishke image, but what does that have to do with boxing itself? This is the sport that gave us Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Benny Leonard, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and so many others who, in their day, were considered the greatest of the great athletes. So it’s about athletics, not bone-breaking and not the Jews’ image or that of any other group.

    ***I would like to point out to readers that this Whitey guy is my Dad. And he would never hurt a fly. — Haim Watzman ***

  5. I don’t agree that because Rabbi Blech is “convinced that Jews are perceived as weak” that logically means “which is to say, he so perceives Jews as weak.” But I agree that the rabbi is off base with that statement. The bottom line is, who cares about other people’s perceptions.

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